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Obituary: Ronald Brand

RONALD BRAND was an outstanding youth leader, teacher and humanitarian. As an inspirational leader of Forest School Camps for over 40 years, Brand opened up the countryside, as well as the support, love and learning which can be found in a small community, to many thousands of children and staff. He lived simply, giving generously and equally to all he met. He was also a dedicated political activist.

He was born in 1910, one of seven children, in Bermondsey, south-east London, where his father worked in a family fur business. He had a sound basic education at an enlightened school where he excelled in sports.

The influence which gave direction to his life was that of a youth movement, the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry (OWC), founded by Ernest Westlake during the First World War. Ernest's son, Aubrey, was a GP in Bermondsey and had founded one of the order's first experimental groups, of which Brand became a keen member.

The OWC had some common ground with the Scouts, but Ernest Westlake, in contrast to the soldier Baden-Powell, was a philosopher and anthropologist who believed that boys and girls in the cities needed the experience of living together in the woods and hills of the countryside where they could confront some of the conditions which their forebears in prehistoric times had to adapt and control in order to survive.

Apart from the many local youth groups, the OWC founded Forest School at its base near Fordingbridge, on the edge of the New Forest, and also a scheme for retraining unemployed men, the "Grith Fyrd" or Peace Militia.

Brand, on leaving school, became a laboratory technician at Guy's Hospital, in London, but was soon chosen as a staff leader at Grith Fyrd and later as a teacher at Forest School. Here some 25 children lived in huts in the woods and the school became well known as a progressive school with an emphasis on craft work and living in natural surroundings.

At Forest School Brand met, and in 1936 married, Ellen Meatyard (known to all as "N"), the school's first housemother. After the birth of their second child, unable to support a family on Forest School's token salary, Ron Brand became a school attendance officer with Surrey County Council.

Called up to the RAF in 1940, he was first trained in the medical service before being commissioned in signals and intelligence-gathering. In this role he took a small unit to the Normandy beachhead and enjoyed the camping conditions bemoaned by his colleagues. He was then posted to India, which he immediately loved, and developed a close feeling for the culture and poor workers of the sub-continent.

After a brief return to his job in Surrey, he took advantage of the one- year emergency retraining scheme to study and qualify as a teacher. He became a successful and highly valued teacher, specialising first in Physical Education and subsequently in English and remedial work in various Surrey comprehensive schools, until his retirement in 1975.

While still at college he had taken a leading part in establishing children's camps at Forest School's new base in Norfolk, where it had moved in 1938. It had been impractical to restart the school after its wartime closure, but the camps, known as Forest School Camps, struck an immediate chord with parents. They appreciated the simple but challenging experience for children aged six to 17 of sleeping in small tents on the ground, living with basic amenities, learning to use tools, to make fires for warmth and cooking and above all, to form for a fortnight a close and democratic community where every individual had his or her place and value.

Brand's administrative skills and energy led, in 1956, to his becoming the organising General Secretary. He had a clear vision of the educational value of the camps and provided inspiring personal leadership, but also he gave the camps an administrative base through which, by the 1960s, around 1,000 children a year were camping and taking part in some 20 activities.

The standing camps, each of about 65 children, were the foundation but the more adventurous participants went on to mobile activities, such as canoeing, cycling and lightweight hiking, both in this country and in Europe. Brand himself pioneered and led many of these camps and activities.

He remained General Secretary until soon after he retired from the children's activities in his seventies. He then undertook to organise an annual International Workcamp for young adults, mainly from Eastern Europe. He organised and led these from 1984 until his last camp, at the age of 81, still sleeping in his lightweight tent on the hard ground and still the first up to light the kitchen fire and sing the camp awake.

All his life Brand was active in politics, fired by the ideals of socialism and care for the underprivileged, first in the Independent Labour Party and then for years as a loyal supporter of the Communist Party. During the 1980s he was appointed OBE "for services to education" but refused it, unhappy with both the principle of the award and the Thatcher government's policies on education.

Ron Brand will be remembered by thousands of people, by the friends of his youth in the OWC and at Forest School, by the pupils to whom he gave so much and by the campers for whom "Beefy" was an inspirational figure who changed their lives.

Ronald Arthur Brand, teacher and youth leader: born London 30 July 1910; General Secretary, Forest School Camps 1956-86; married 1936 Ellen Meatyard (two sons, one daughter); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 12 October 1998.